Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Asperger's Syndrome: Parents Blamed In Irish Article

An article by Dr Tony Humphreys, a clinical psychologist, appeared in the print edition of the Irish Examiner on the 3rd Feb 2012 where he suggests that Aspergers syndromean autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is NOT a neurological condition, but the result of 'cold parents' who are unable to give their children the love & attention they need. Since publication the Irish Examiner has been in damage control & Dr Humphreys forced on the defensive as a result of the backlash the article created.

As this article is yet to appear in the online version of the paper, I reproduce it here in full:

"A team of researchers at Cambridge University is currently exploring the connection between high-achieving parents, such as engineers, scientists and computer programmers and the development of their children. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, who is the director of the Autism Research Centre at the university, says there are indications that adults who have careers in areas of science and math are more likely to have autistic children.

In studies in 1997 and 2001 it was found that the children and grandchildren of engineers were more likely to be autistic and that mathematicians had higher rates of autism than other professions. What is shocking is that Dr Baron-Cohen and the team of researchers are one: assuming that autism is a scientific fact and, two: missing the glaringly obvious fact that if the adults they researched live predominanently in their heads and possess few or no heart qualities, their children will need to find some way of defending themselves against the absence of expressed love and affection and emotional receptivity.

After all, the deepest need of every child is to be unconditionally loved and the absence of it results in children shutting down emotionally themselves because to continue to spontaneously reach out for love would be far too painful.

Children's wellbeing mostly depends on emotional security - a daily diet of nurture, love, affection, patience, warmth, tenderness, kindness and calm responses to their expressed welfare and emergency feelings. To say that these children have a genetic and/or neurobiological disorder called autism or ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) only adds further to their misery and condemns them to a relationship history where their every thought and action is interpreted as arising from their autism.

It is frequently the case that it is when these children go to school that their emotional and social withdrawal of eccentricities are noticed, mainly by teachers, who themselves can struggle with how best to respond to these children. An unconscious collusion can emerge between parents and teachers to have these children psychiatrically assessed so that the spotlight is put on the children and not their adult carers' own emotional and social struggles. Regretfully, the relationship contexts of the childrens' lives are not examined and their mature development is often sacrificed on the fires of the unresolved emotiuonal defences of those adults who are responsible for their care.

It is important to hold to the fact that these carers do not consciously block their children's wellbeing, but the unconscious hope of children is that other adults (teachers, relatives, educational psychologists, care workers) that when they are emotionally and socially troubled, it is their adult carers who often need more help than they do.

Indeed, my experience in my own psychological practice is that when parents and teachers resolve their own fears and insecurities, children begin to express what they dare not express before their guardians resolved their own emotional turmoil.

A clear distinction needs to be made between the autism described by psychiatrist Leo Kanner in 1943 and the much more recently described ASD (autistic spectrum disorder, often referred to as Asperger's syndrome). The former 'condition' was an attempt to understand severely emotionally withdrawn children, the latter concept, which is being used in an alarmingly and rapidly increasing way, is an attempt to explain children's more moderate emotional and social difficulties. Curiously - and not at all explained by those health and educational professionals who believe that autism and ASD are genetic and/or neurobiological disorders - is the gender bias of being more diagnosed in boys (a ratio of four to one). This bias is also found with ADHD. Surely that gender phenomenon indicates the probability that boys are reared differently to girls and that due to social and cultural factors boys respond to the troubling behaviours of their adult carers in ways that are radically different to girls.

What is equally distressing is that, as for ADHD, a whole industry involving research, assessment, screening, education and treatment has been developed, despite the absence of any scientific basis or test for either the originally 'detected' autism or for the broader construct of ASD.

Sami Timimi, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and two colleagues rigorously examined over 5000 research articles on autism and ASD and found no scientific basis for what they now refer to as mythical disorders. They outline their findings in their book 'The Myth of Autism' (2011). The conclusion of their indepty studies is that "there is no such thing as autism and the label should be abolished".

The authors are not saying that the children are not emotionally and socially troubled. What they are saying is - and I concur with them - that focus needs to be on the relationship contexts of these children's livews, and to take each child for the individual he or she is and to examine closely the family and community narratives and discover creative possibilities for change and for more dynamic and hopeful stories to emerge for both the children and their carers.

Dr Tony Humphreys is a consultant clinical psychologist, author and national and international speaker. His book 'All About Children" is relevant to todays article." 
As expected, the response from both parents & other professionals was fast & furious, with the vast majority outraged by the article. The debate has moved from the Examiner to other print media, television, radio & of course, the internet. Here are just a few of the responses:

"WHAT Dr Tony Humphreys is describing is not a new theory. In fact, he is returning to an idea popular 70 years ago, known as the Refrigerator Mother theory. The problem with that theory is that it assumed parents were universally cold and unconnected with their children, and it was wrong.

It was wrong and it was abandoned in the face of overwhelming evidence collected by psychologists, neurologists, epidemiologists and academic researchers.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a clearly defined condition with a common set of symptoms that are differentiated by their severity. That’s why it is known as a "spectrum disorder" because it covers a spectrum of severity. (Dr Humphreys’ comment that "autistic spectrum disorder, often referred to as Asperger’s syndrome" is simply incorrect. Asperger’s syndrome is an autistic spectrum disorder, not a name for it.)

At least, that’s how our scientific advisers explain it to us. What we see is a little different.

We see children who are unconditionally loved by their parents. We see parents who are warm and caring, but whose emotional temperature rises whenever those children are threatened or dismissed.
We have seen them fight and cry and despair. And we have seen them get back up and keep going under pressures that would break most of us. We have seen them take on authority, ignorance, and prejudice — and triumph.
Slowly, we have seen our country catching up with what those parents know: That ASD is no emotional withdrawal. The Department of Health fully acknowledges the condition and a method of diagnosing it.
The EU is so concerned that it is funding research to determine how widespread the condition is. Irish Autism Action is part of that project and its initial figures show that roughly one in every 100 children born here has ASD.
It is true that the causes of ASD are unclear. There is clearly a strong genetic element, though how precisely it operates is not understood. There seem to be environmental elements though they are yet to be fully examined.
What people with autism and their parents need is more research that specifically addresses how the condition occurs — not the defrosting of an assumption over half a century old."
Kevin Whelan, Chief Executive, Irish Autism Action (Irish Examiner 07/02/2012)
"The article by Tony Humphreys claiming that autism is caused by "cold" or emotionally distant parents, displays such willful ignorance, lack of understanding and density of inaccurate and offensive statements that it is shocking that the Irish Examiner would publish it.
This kind of psycho-babble has been discredited for decades.
Autism is a biological, brain-based disorder. It is also a genetic disorder. The scientific evidence for these statements is overwhelming. We now know of more than 100 distinct genetic conditions that can result in autistic symptoms.
These conditions affect early development of the brain and researchers are making progress in understanding how that results in the specific symptoms seen in autism, which may range widely in severity.
In contrast, the claims by Mr Humphreys are a throwback to psycho-analytic theories that are completely unsupported by any evidence, as well as being actively damaging and hurtful.
In publishing this waffle, your paper does a disservice to responsible journalism and to all the patients, parents and teachers struggling to cope with the real disabilities caused by this condition."
 Kevin Mitchell PhD, Associate professor of genetics and neuroscience, Trinity College Dublin (Irish Examiner 07/02/2012) 

"It is at a minimum the responsibility of a newspaper editor to ensure that the content of the paper he edits provides balance and accuracy.

I was dismayed to read the offensive article published by the Irish Examiner written by Tony Humphreys (Feelgood, Feb 3), which demonstrated that neither balance nor accuracy were considered. The tone of the article dismisses the direct experiences of the parents and relatives of more than 30,000 Irish citizens who have an autistic spectrum disorder.
Here are the facts:

* Autism is a devastating neurodevelopmental disorder associated with significant burden of care on parents and relatives and the people affected.
* Brain development is atypical from an early age.
* Children with autism need an early diagnosis to ensure appropriate treatment and interventions.
* Early interventions have a demonstrable impact in limiting the impact of the disability. The only thing accurate that Mr Humphreys had to say was “children’s well-being mostly depends on emotional security” advocating for a nurturing style of parenting.
What Mr Humphreys fails to recognise or acknowledge is the extent with which the parents of the hundreds of children with autism that I have encountered manage their children’s challenges on a daily basis with love, humour, patience, nurturing and devotion.
They sacrifice careers and financial security to ensure that their children receive everything possible to realise their potential. A parent can simply do no more than this. Through this entirely one-sided representation of a 1950s hypothesis on the causes of autism, your paper has caused unnecessary distress to thousands of people in this country. It is simply unacceptable to state that the piece is an opinion piece.
It requires an immediate retraction and apology to all those affected by autism everywhere." 
Professor Louise Gallagher, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Trinity College, Dublin (Irish Examiner 08/02/2012)

"CLAIMS BY a prominent psychologist that parents were in some way responsible for their children’s autism by exhibiting a lack of love have been described as “outrageous” by Minister for Health and Children Dr James Reilly.Dr Reilly, who has a 25-year-old autistic son, said Dr Tony Humphreys’s remarks were a slur on parents with autistic children.

“It was utterly outrageous. The hurt that he caused people is absolutely astonishing,” he said.

Dr Humphreys drew an angry response from many parents of autistic children in a column in the Irish Examiner last week. He referred to a study purporting to show higher levels of autism in the children of parents involved in mathematics and science.

He said the researchers had missed the “glaringly obvious fact that if the adults they researched live predominantly in their heads and possess few or no heart qualities, their children will need to find some way of defending themselves against the absence of expressed love and affection and emotional receptivity”.

Dr Reilly said Dr Humphreys compounded his original offence by going on the Marian Finucane Show on RTÉ radio and stating that parents need not worry that autism had a genetic component.

“Another utter insult to parents. I say this to parents, let nobody set a limit on your child’s horizon,” the Minister said in an interview on TV3 News. “If one of your children has a problem with autism and the others don’t, it is not your parenting skills that are the issue.”

Dr Reilly’s son Jamie is now 25 and recently graduated from TCD with an honours degree in genetics. Both father and son spoke at a recent international conference on autism in Galway.

Dr Humphreys could not be contacted last night. He told TV3 that he regretted causing any offence, but did not regret speaking what he believed was the truth."
Dr James Reilly, Irish Minister for Health and Children ( 14/02/2012)

This is just a few replies from professionals, the responses from the general public are everywhere. A visit to the Autism in the Media page from the Irish Autism Action website will link you with many more responses if you want to read them, very few of them supporting Dr Humphreys position.

So what are your thoughts on the issue, are the parents to blame? Me, I don't think so. The environment surrounding a child may have some effect, but to dismiss Aspergers as totally the parents fault, as if they are emotional sink-holes is an insult to sufferers & their parents alike.

The information contained in this blog can not be considered medical advice. These are only my own thoughts, feelings & ideas. If you or someone you know are having problems with mental illness please seek qualified medical advice.

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